Ashita no Nadja
Nadja Applefield has lived her whole life at the Applefield Orphanage which has been a fairly happy life but she's stunned when a package arrives which reveals that her mother has been alive for all these years and is somewhere in Europe, unaware that her sweet Nadja is not in fact dead. The mysterious package sender isn't the only one who knows this, Nadja's grandfather has hired detectives in order to assess if she's worthy to be his heir but his son (her uncle) has bought them off and they are now trying to steal every proof she has of her mother. And so she goes off on a trip across Europe, chasing and being chased as she tries to find her mother and meets both wonderful and complicated people along the way.
To start on an interesting note, this was actually Toei's show that they produced between the last season of Doremi and the first installment of PreCure which explains why the show was a year long and I like what it says about the viewers for all those shows. I had always thought that the Precure series were aimed more at 6 to 8 year olds than anything else but, since this is in the same timeslot and I know that in the US (for middle grade fiction) the general rule of thumb is to make the characters one year older than the viewer I have to wonder now, especially since this show had some parts that would go completely over a 7 year olds head but a 12 year old might start to pick up on. I could be reading too much into this, especially given that all those photos I've seen of girls at the Precure movies and doing the dances look even younger than 8, but there were a lot of subtle moments in the show that clearly weren't there by accident. Especially towards the middle of the show, there were a few episodes where I thought the writers were just being really heavy handed with the "moral" of the episode ( which stood out since most episodes weren't like that) but then I noticed that those themes would come back up two episodes later but just much more subtlety and would be very important to the plot. The show actually takes some pretty unlikable characters, minor villains in a way, and gives them reasons for what they do (they're still not likable but they suddenly become believable) and most of the time it's done by reiterating a lesson that Nadja has already come across. It's always a bit had to judge what will be understandable vs too obscure for an audience that hadn't really studied literary techniques but I remember bring able to pick up some subtler hints in Avatar: The Last Airbender when I was 14 so maybe the writers were bring cleverer than I first thought.
Speaking of subtle, this show also does an amazing job at using a Pollyanna-type character, just like in all those examples I named in the introduction, and yet does not fall into the trap that a kind character is a nice, one-note one. Nadja is a sweet, cheerful, resourceful girl whose able to stay positive through an amazing number of situations but yet when faced with her villain the show was able to prove that a Pollyanna character can be more than just that. It's rather appropriate that the show has multiple villains (and morally ambiguous characters) but the one who does the most damage is one of Nadja's peers, the quietly twisted Rosemary whose always dreamed of being a princess and impersonates Nadja when her uncle thinks he can manipulate her. Not only does he fail because Rosemary is clever than he is but when Rosemary acts the way she thinks Nadja would in the situation, caring and sorry that her dear friend is telling all these lies to ruin her life, it completely backfires; sweet Nadja has to be actually restrained a half dozen times in one meeting alone from slapping her and she has real anger, I don't think she forgives Rosemary in the end. There are other moments in the show where Nadja breaks down, all after Rosemary is introduced, but not only does she do this in private away from the other characters but that's actually not unheard of for Pollyanna characters, it's usually part of the character arc! Ashita no Nadja feels like an example where the writers didn't go "let's write about this type of character" but instead went "let's make a character who acts like this, oh huh I guess she fits that type, let's borrow some ideas from it". The show also has another pair of characters where it uses this mirrored imagery on but that one is a tad too spoilerly for me to talk about*, just keep an eye out for the light and dark parts of a scene.
The show is really great at making use of reoccurring themes both story-wise and visually, call it symbolism for the visuals but the show loves to have shots where two characters are separated by a physical object (like a window frame) or two characters talking to each other separated by a panning shot and then following that up by either moving them closer together or isolating one farther away. Ideally all visual stories would be as careful and interesting about these things but over the past year I've started to notice it more (blame the double-whammy of two such carefully scripted shows, Gatchaman Crowds and Kyousogiga back to back) not all shows do that so it's fun to see one that does. Story-wise, as I mentioned earlier about the lights and darks, the show really likes to set up pairs of characters (and pairs of pairs) with similar situations and then contrasts their feelings and reactions. By doing half of the talking with these visuals clues it means that the characters don't have to articulate how they feel but the viewer can easily grasp it (the show does use a lot of internal narration as well but even then the show is more likely to show you what the character is feeling than have them tell you). I would like to give a special mention to the middle of the show, episode 26 which is incredibly important plotwise (Toei always makes the 13, 26, and 39 episodes especially important) but they also got Mamoru Hosda (later of Summer Wars and Wolf Children fame) to direct the episode and it really shows. I wouldn't have been able to tell that it was him directing the episode but the tone of the episode is a bit different and the visuals go into symbolic overdrive as every shot, every beam of light, is carefully accounted for and placed for maximum effect. The rest of the series doesn't look bad although it is dated, I actually liked one or two of Nadja's repeated dancing animations (especially her flamenco dancing one) and the ending sequence is criminally adorable. Voice-wise I was stunned to learn that Nadja's VA is Ami Koshimizu whose currently well known for doing Ryuko in Kill la Kill (I only found out from this adorable fanart)which are two completely different character types but she does both of them pretty well honestly!
Going back to the heart of the show, like I said at the very beginning it's a long story and there are certainly parts where it feels like the creators are trying to stall for time since they don't want to add in another subplot yet they have more episodes to fill. And they do put in a lot of them, if you look at the opening song and go "geeze, it kinda looks like our 12 year old heroine is building a harem" you're not quite wrong, all of those guys will pop up multiple times and towards the end of the story is seems like everyone Nadja has ever met has an important clue to finding her mother^. But yet, I can't fault the show for that since those interactions tie back into it's larger overall messages, that everyone has some good in them (or at least did at one point) and when bad things happen to good people you help each other out. I would add the traditional "be yourself and people will like you" as well as "be as persistent as you need to be" except we see both Nadja and Rosemary using and abusing these ideas, this show isn't dumb and doesn't think it's viewers are either. I can see a lot of people being put off by it's length (it took seven years to fansub at least!) and that it's not legally streaming anywhere (apparently at one point it was licensed to be put into two compilation films which sounds terrible) but if you've got some dedication and are fed up with the more romance-driven shojo that's popular these days give it a shot, it's a very rewarding series I can promise you that!
*I also think it's one of the greatest asspulls of character reveals ever but I'll save that rant for another time.
^sadly some of the characters who are only introduced in the last third of the show come off rather flatly, Mary Ann has really good lines, and could have been a really interesting character but her delivery just doesn't match how expressive her face is and the disconnect was weird, although that was more due to the acting than the writing.